by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will come out this December.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4).
The pictures from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have delivered the most astounding infrared image of our distant universe so far. What we see, in a tiny sliver of the vast universe is space teeming with thousands of galaxies. Light from these galaxies took billions of years to reach us.
And Job’s magnificent question deserves at least a stab at forming an answer? “Where were we?” We were still stardust. Astronomer George Coyne – Jesuit priest and astronomer who also served as director of the Vatican observatory — said that we are literally made of stardust. “The elements that enable life are formed in the stars themselves, and only a universe like ours could have formed these elements in abundance sufficient to produce planets where life was possible.” “Stardust thou art and to stardust thou shalt return.”
Gazing at the Webb pictures gives me sensory overload. Webb’s MIRI image offers a kaleidoscope of colors and highlights where the dust is – a major ingredient in star formation, and ultimately life itself. The red objects (galaxies) in the pictures are enshrouded in thick layers of dust. Green galaxies are populated with hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds essential to life. These pictures reveal God’s creation workshop.
The meticulous and painstaking development of life is beautifully expressed in Martin Rees’s book, Just Six Numbers. Rees chose six numerical constants and demonstrated how slight changes in any of them would have made life literally impossible. For example, Rees considers a fused helium nucleus which consists of two protons and two neutrons. This fused helium nucleus weighs exactly 0.7 less than the two protons and two neutrons from which it was formed. If the helium nucleus has weighed 0.8 there would have been a plethora of runaway fusion reactions that would have drained the infant universe of its hydrogen atoms and there would have been no stars such as the sun, no solar system, no earth, no water, and no life.
If the force had been a little weaker, say 0.6, there would have been no helium nucleus, only hydrogen atoms. End result: No life. The science – the physics and chemistry – had to be exactly right. One wonders how many failed attempts are scattered across the vast background of the universe before a patient, loving, sharing God got it all just right and created life. Science, after all, is organized common sense. A good scientist keeps experimenting, keeps failing, in order to get to the right result. This process merely imitates the work of God gently persuading the various elements to move in the direction of life and flourishing. In this way chaos became cosmos, darkness became light, and the Word became light and lived among us.
Take one more example from Rees. “The cosmos is so vast because there is one crucially important huge number N in nature, equal to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. This number measures the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. If N had a few less zeroes, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist; no creatures could grow larger than insects, and there would be no time for biological evolution.” Imagine that this process had been shortened, and N had been 3 zeroes short. We could then imagine that we had a universe that only produced minions (to use a bit of creative fantasy from the cinematic world).
The science of creation demonstrates that time and speed, energy and motion, were critical to the universe’s appearance. In the case of time and speed, both were precisely tuned. Ken Ham’s creationism based on a literal six-day calendar is an impossibility even for God. As Rees notes, “The cosmic number Ω (omega) measures the amount of material in our universe – galaxies, diffuse gas, and ‘dark matter.’ Ω tells us the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. If this ratio were too high relative to a particular ‘crucial’ value, the universe would have collapsed long ago; had it been too low, no galaxies or stars would have formed. The initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned.”
At the heart of every entity, every bit and particle of matter, every seemingly solid thing, is this intense energy and movement. The scientists call it the dance of the subatomic particles. Christians take delight in the scientific notions of energy and movement, because we believe that the choreographer of the dance of the subatomic particles is God. We call the energy and movement the breath of God. That’s the combination essential to creation: Stardust and breath of God.
Self-awareness enables us to see that the environmental crises we now face emerge, like us, from the stars of the universe. We have before us the opportunity to develop an extraordinary environmental stewardship that will enable us to deal wisely with global warming, overpopulation, and extinction. Looking at the ancient stars, we have a cosmic picture of what will happen to earth if we persist in science-bashing and climate denial. “The lesson of evolutionary cosmology is that each moment of our existence is a gift from the stars, to be experienced, treasured, used wisely, and enjoyed” (Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory).
Science has taught us that our existence requires a universe of vastness and great age. Only a precise mix of materials and constants could have brought all of this into being. “Our very being requires that exactly such a universe be spread out before us in all its stirring beauty” (Miller). Life has been built, over the billions of years on the physics and chemistry of matter itself. We live in a universe in which life is contingent upon the laws of nature and woven into the fabric of the universe itself. God, taking her sweet time, didn’t have any “corporate” deadlines. This was no ”rush” job that had to be completed in six days. From stardust to humanity involved a precise formula that couldn’t be deviated from in the slightest. Such precision required time and, at the right time, the kairotic moment: “the Lord God formed man from the starddust of the galaxies, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
When I look at the pictures from the Webb Space Telescope, at the heavens, the stars, the work of God’s fingers, I can only ask; what are human beings that God is mindful of us? We are the work of God’s hands. She made us from stardust and the great wind of God’s breath blew that stardust across the empty vastness until humans were formed after billions of years. God made us a little lower than herself and crowned us with glory and honor. Then God commanded us to have dominion over the intricately developed universe, not in terms of power and oppression, but as stewards protecting, enhancing, and encouraging all the entities of the universe to respond to God’s gentle persuasion. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”